Tag Archives: suffering

I sing of an age

I Sing of an age that’s almost flown
Birds whose voices raised the morning sky
Wild landscapes, spread out to receive the naked sun
Trees whose roots embraced the earth, yet towered high
Seeds that sprang up fragile life, silent but for the wind

I sing of the age of crumbling dust
Rumbling wheeled boxes that fume with piercing cries
Houses molded for masses, as if carved from a single stone
Plants with their exhalations of thick smoke, clouding corroded concrete fields

Forests that burn while communities fall
Beneath a cacophony of chorused lies
Millions enslaved to masters ticking on the wall
Hands that wring the time from unlived lives

Endless games of monopoly and musical coins
Galleries of staged photographs, manufactured mirrors to memory
Chiseled bodies, carved into perfection, whose occupants still seethe with self-loathing and hate
Gold palaces, beneath which bones rattle the dark restlessly

Stories of renewal on tips of tongues that never tasted rain
The deserts of souls whose blood runs dry
Endless grey complacency to numb the festering and open wounds
A harvest of pain sewn from all we deny

Wars waged to sunder, to ravish with rage
A wasteland of frightened faces fleeing for shelter, turned away
Nuclear families forced to split apart, fission into half-lives
Screams in school yards and the drip of silence cold as death

Generations gaunt and starving and those who crushed them to make their start
Spilled greed that leaves a spreading stain
A sea of fear to fill the ever-widening divide
ANONYMOUS sentries sent to defend and guard against each broken heart

Children who are taught to lose themselves before they’re formed
Men and women wanderers with vacant hollow eyes
Their tears from banished terrors fall stillborn
Life lingers, though breath’s motion fades as oceans rise

I sing of an age bereft and slowly breaking
Each, though aching, standing alone
Among the paths still left to us for taking
Could we accept and meet this age, and one another, as our own

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The Treacherous Terrain of Spiritual Utilitarianism

Imagine that you, a person who considers yourself firmly on a fulfilling spiritual path, have just broken your leg in a freak accident. While recovering in the hospital, you are visited by someone who, up until now, has been a dear friend. Unfortunately, that is about to change…

Your friend opens her mouth to comfort you and says, “It must be really hard to be dealing with this right now. But,” she continues with unnatural excitement, “You’ve given yourself such a wonderful soul growth opportunity!”

When you gawk at her with both incomprehension and a sinking feeling that perhaps you’d rather remain ignorant of her meaning, she simply ploughs ahead with the explanation you never had been waiting for. “See, before you were born, your soul chose all the lessons you were to learn in your lifetime. You chose to sign up for all sorts of traumatic experiences, including breaking your leg, so you could accelerate your spiritual development in this lifetime. Gosh, what a wonderful thing! Think of everything you can learn from it!”

Wonderful? Your doctor is running late on his rounds and you’re in need of more pain relief. After ordering your friend to leave in a voice which sounds unsettlingly more like a growl than a human, you sink back on the hospital pillows hoping for some peace. But it doesn’t come.

Despite yourself, you find you are very disturbed both by what your friend said and what her words imply. How can your friend actually believe her own words? And what if, an admittedly terrifying thought, your friend is right? After all, can anyone really prove her wrong?

Did you choose before birth that you were going to break your leg? Does everyone choose what happens to them before birth? What about abuse or cancer survivors, what about survivors of genocide. Surely, assuming there’s an afterlife; no soul would choose such a horrible experience willingly, no matter how sweeping the universal perspective might be. You think back to spiritual teachings you’ve heard in the past about the other side being full of light and unconditional love. Could anyone possessing unconditional love for themselves and all beings ever justify or permit atrocities to be done to themselves or others they love simply on the grounds of expedience? Talk about violence inherent in the system!

The above example is of course hypothetical, but the concept it describes is alive and well. It is a concept that is perhaps most popular in new age philosophy and spirituality, but is gaining supporters from people of spiritual backgrounds of all sorts. It is defended in books you never would want to pick up and read, and books by people who genuinely, purposefully, and passionately live their own spirituality every day with heart and dedication. In the spirit of respectful disagreement, I chose to quote someone of the latter sort to exemplify.

Lissa Rankin is a spiritual person I greatly admire, many of whose teachings and perspectives I have also come to adopt along my own spiritual journey. She is definitely not the first, and certainly won’t be the last to defend the plausibility of what I call spiritual utilitarianism, the doctrine that actions are right or acceptable when they maximize usefulness, here understood to consist in the greatest personal and collective spiritual development over lifetimes. Here is her eloquent and succinct articulation of spiritual utilitarianism found in her book, The Fear Cure.

Think of the greatest challenges you’ve ever faced—childhood
Abuse, the abandonment or neglect of a parent, illness or disability,
The loss of a loved one, betrayal, heartbreak, divorce, poverty,
being the victim of a violent crime, selling your soul for a paycheck,
Or whatever has hurt you the most. What if, instead of
Being a victim of these traumas, on some soul level, you chose
these challenges?

– Lissa Rankin, The Fear Cure

What if, indeed? Houston, we have a problem.

First, let us inquire into some of the practical and physical world dangers which could easily result from the widespread adoption of this view.

• Victim Blaming: It wasn’t his fault, she asked for it … literally, before she was born.)
• Apathetic Response-Ability: I can feel like a good person while I do nothing to help with (poverty, homelessness, that woman being harassed at work, that man being discriminated against for his disability) because everyone having these experiences chose to put them in their life. Who am I to interfere with their spiritual development? I’m off the hook.
• Complacency and Disconnection: If you really believe that everyone’s hardships, including your own, are a result of soul decisions you made before incarnating, compassion and empathy are optional, not necessitated. It is hard to be authentically present with your feelings if you think you have set up the circumstances of them in advance. If this is true in your own case, it is even truer when trying to relate to others who obviously chose their own suffering.
• Standard Problems for Maximizing Consequentialist Theories: Spiritual utilitarianism holds that actions are spiritually good/worthy if they maximize spiritual growth and minimize spiritual regression or stagnation. It is for this reason a maximizing consequentialist theory—that is, the good on this view is defined in terms of maximizing consequences and outcomes.

Spiritual Objections to Spiritual Utilitarianism
• Spiritual Utilitarianism is a System That Fosters Disconnection: The choice which spiritual utilitarianism posits occurs before birth is itself, after drawing out implications of the theory, a vehicle for separation. That is enough to call its claim to being a theory of spirituality into question.
• A Theory to Shield One From Vulnerability and Mortality: Spiritual Utilitarianism is a wonderful defense mechanism against confronting your own mortality or your own susceptibility to pain, illness, disability, loss, and hardship. Are you struggling with a disability or illness? You can try to console yourself with the thought that your higher self lovingly wanted this for you. Are you currently able bodied and are afraid of disability or loss? You don’t need to confront your fears or seriously question your inaccurate assumptions about others’ quality of life if they all asked to have such experiences. You can ward off fears of facing your own vulnerability in this way, too, believing that while the future is uncertain to you, your higher self already knows all about it. Defense mechanisms always sound like a good idea until you remember they are one of the most common barriers between you and genuine spiritual development, interconnection with all of life, and self honesty. Defensiveness leads to self-deception, which prevents a person from either fully shining her own light, or being able to fully give and receive love. When any spiritual concept or theory is used as a defense mechanism, it creates suffering, disconnection and isolation, and blocks openness, integrity, intimacy, love, and acceptance.
• A Superiority Complex: If you are happy and healthy, spiritual utilitarianism could easily lead you to conclude that you’re quite spiritually evolved, while those who are suffering have a lot to learn. But one of the most fundamental spiritual truths that exist is that we are spiritually equal. And one of the most fundamental physical truths is that we are equally susceptible to vulnerability. After these considerations, spiritual utilitarianism seems right out, as well as highly divisive.
• Spiritual Utilitarianism Permits Betrayal by your Higher Power: Should god/source/the one betray you in the name of expedience? Assuming for a moment such a betrayal is possible, spiritual utilitarianism seems to condone such a soul-devastating occurrence if it will result in your rapid spiritual development (somehow.) It might also be permissible for human beings, in the name of spiritual utilitarianism, to create suffering for others if that suffering is found to further spiritual growth. At first, this might sound crazy. But it is most definitely not, when you remember that the theory in question defines right action only in terms of the act’s consequences.

Questions That Need Asking:
Before taking any theory on board as part of your ethical outlook or spiritual practice/belief system, critical thinking is a must. Here are the questions I’ve asked myself about spiritual utilitarianism.

1. Generally, we think it wrong to sign off on something without another’s consent. The incarnate you will not remember her link to the soul who made the decisions for her life to come. How is choosing horrendous hardships for your future incarnate self any different morally from making the same choices on behalf of your imminently arriving future clone?

2. Suppose you want to learn a spiritual lesson and there is a rapid harrowing way of achieving it and a much slower gentle way of achieving it. Is it really ethical (or an act of self-love or compassion) to willingly harm yourself by subjecting yourself to the former rather than opting for the latter? My intuition is that such self harm is spiritually/ethically wrong, but such a decision would be praised for its goodness on the spiritual utilitarianism theory.

3. If it would maximize your spiritual growth through a particular soul lesson for you to cause grave suffering to another, should you do it?

4. Is suffering ever absolutely necessary? Are unconditional love and prechosen courses of suffering compatible?

5. It seems that the claim that we need to maximize spiritual growth is incompatible with actually achieving such growth. That is, a person who goes about actively trying to maximize her development will, by the very nature of grasping after outcomes, distance herself even further from the goal. Does the same self-defeating logic apply on the other side?

6. Is it possible for a soul to live authentically, allowing the divine to lead her, while insisting on choosing for herself ahead of time how her life is going to go, at a general level.

7. What if you’re not a utilitarian? If spiritual utilitarianism were true, would all souls have to adopt it? What if you, as a spiritual being, lived by completely different principles or took a different approach to growing and becoming more generally. Aren’t you allowed to conduct yourself according to your deepest truth, or is spirituality cosmically standardized? I shudder at the thought!

Personally, after working through all these implications of the spiritual utilitarianism theory, I am willing to see it sent off to that lovely place to which absurd, harmful, or groundless theories go when their time has expired. I am willing, as well, to bet that whatever happens after we die, choosing the pivotal events of great suffering for our lives to come is not part of it. We can thank the gods for that!

I will eventually be following this post up with another which aims to explore what, if anything, might replace the rather misplaced theory of spiritual utilitarianism as a plausible theory of spiritual growth and right action. Don’t be surprised if it has virtue ethics in it. I mean, my entire dissertation is on virtue ethics. What else would I advocate? Surely, it would be the very stuff I believe and live by.

Meanwhile, question everything.

Forging Something New

Hoping that struggle will solve every problem,
Treading water for days,
I give in, realizing I’ve not gone anywhere,
But am rather swamped by other people’s feelings.

What am I missing?
staying strong, striving for more,
Too much to be done now
To wait for a quieter kind of transformation.

I don’t want to use the word despair,
It serves no one,
But I am a single person
In a needy sea of change.

Tidal waves crash, over my head,
And it gets hard to breathe.
No place to land, I try floating,
Only to look up at a sky, clouded.

Yesterday we asked for healing.
We saw the red tears fall,
We hoped thread-bare, without ceasing,
Grounding ourselves on the standing stones.

Today I feel so terribly alone,
Finishing a project that cannot restore
The fracked landscape, felled trees,
Sorrow in the lives of my many friends.

It is not enough to ease my exhaustion,
Or put an end to the haunted look in my eyes.
Do we have enough time?
Is there still time?

Yesterday I sprawled out on the rock
And closed my eyes,
A purple hood pulled up over my head,
Keeping out the cold. You said,

Would you ever be willing to bend like a spoon
Reshaped to reflect all your brilliant light?
I’d hold you safe within my hands
Until you became definite, solid again.

I admit, I find this a wholly disagreeable idea,
So I’ve answered you so far with the sound of silence.
What am I missing? Holding still for a moment,
This fragmented world spinning out of control, I am at a loss.

But, too discouraged to do anything else,
I let go, with no clue as to what’s going on.
Cave early, I’ve heard. I agree out of weariness, not curiosity,
The hapless child stumbling over myself to get out of the way.

What’s going to happen now?
The oceans are heaving in grief,
The world cries out in human and nonhuman voices,
Longing, pleading, to end this needless suffering.

And so far I have only fought battles with my shadow,
Tried healing my own raw woundedness.
What is the shape of fear, turned to love?
Such a strange alchemy, when truth meets with acceptance.

I hope for the best,
I come face to face with my own ignorance,
I take one step and then the next,
All right, then, if it means you’ll carry me through the rest.

The Difficulty with Making New Friends

Isolation is a frozen pond,
Achingly glacial blue.
Breaking the surface,
I can’t gloss over what doesn’t serve me anymore.

The future holds people I might come to know and befriend,
But I would have to talk to strangers,
And the past with its doubts shatters me–
Waits to lap up the tears that won’t fall.

What about it? Taking off into the world,
Tramping onto buses,off trains,
Tired, traversing time and uncharted roads,
Just to meet someone who might not love me?

I spend too much time alone in empty spaces,
So I’ll have to reach out, start again,
A falling star, hopefully crash landing into belonging.
Think again, if that at all sounds reassuring.

Despite this, I put myself in your hands,
I will take the steps unknowing,
Going out into the world once more,
I am pulled into the earnest embrace of this year,

Like a moth to a flame.
How it roars and crackles,
And cackles, and cries,
And beckons and flails wildly.

The untamed, unpredictable choice is:
come together or fall apart.
But when it’s my turn to cross that threshold,
I fleetingly wish to be anywhere else.

Flashlight eyes,
Outstretched hands,
A place for me somewhere I can’t imagine,
Shining with love and compassion.

And there’s nothing about the mystery
To suggest anything but uncertainty,
Transformation could be as wondrous as painful,
Colliding into the light we’re drawn to.

Scorched into completion, the same reason
Why we can’t find pollution on the sun,
It all gets burned away,
In a flash, just like that.

It’s been said that we cannot be humble
Without suffering and sorrow,
So silently we provide them hospitality
To guarantee we won’t become full of ourselves.

But surely learning our worth, our strength and our care of it,
Is worth being proud of,
And we will never wake up if we believe
We don’t have it within us to open our eyes